Life Lessons Help Cambodia’s Youth Navigate Slum Realities

Cambodia youth

17-year-old Vuthy, who lives in a slum of Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, takes part in a CRS-supported project run by Youth for Peace. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Seventeen-year-old Vuthy’s life in a slum area of Cambodia is about duty. Not exactly a fun word for a teen, but there’s no other way to describe the rounds of cooking and caretaking this young man handles every day.

With five brothers and sisters, and parents who work long hours far from home, the meals and babysitting fall to Vuthy. He’s up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for his mother, who works a 12-hour shift at a toy factory in the city of Phnom Penh, and his father, a construction worker. Then it’s time to dress and feed his youngest siblings and make sure they get to school. He himself goes to school, and during the traditional long lunch break, he makes more food. Then he cooks again in the evening—several times, because his parents get home well after he’s fed, bathed, and studied with the little kids.

A lot of distractions surround Vuthy. In the shacks that make up his litter-strewn slum, people are playing cards for money, drinking rice wine, and sniffing glue. When too much alcohol has been downed, they also fight; sometimes knives, saws, or even samurai swords appear.

Cambodia program

A social worker with Youth for Peace, a CRS partner, talks to teens about domestic violence. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Somehow Vuthy, and many teens like him, have managed to keep away from the trouble around them. Youth for Peace, a CRS partner in Cambodia, is helping them plan for better futures.

In group discussions run by Youth For Peace, teens and younger 20-somethings talk about problems in their community. “Kids work scavenging through garbage.” “There aren’t good toilets—people go outside.” “There are gangsters.” “Children hit their parents to get money.” “People don’t have enough food.”

The social workers then talk about how to deal with the challenges teens face. In one session, they discuss domestic violence and what to do if they know someone is being hurt. “I’d call the village leader, or the police,” says one boy.

The social workers develop life plans with the young people, asking them what steps they need to take to get jobs or handle finances. To keep things fun, the sessions feature games, stories, and snacks.

“I learned how to set goals in the Youth for Peace program,” says Vuthy, who wants to own a shop. With loving parents and guidance from Youth for Peace, Vuthy has avoided the traps that many teens in his slum fall victim to. “I’m proud of my parents. They support us. We have food to eat and clothes,” he says. “We’re poor but our family is happy.”

Laura Sheahen is CRS regional information officer for Asia and is based in Cambodia.

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